Ah, summer. This is the time when parents send their kids off to get their own vacation from domestic life. Children get to create beautiful summer camp memories and experience a bonding ritual in the woods. Alternatively, it’s the time when camp counsellors are picked off one by one by a masked murderer. Of course, the summer camp has long been the setting of many a slasher film. The remote location, the youthful, hormone-driven cast, the quiet of the woods just gives off the spooky atmosphere from the get-go.
And it’s fun to sit down with your date, get a little spooked and gorge on popcorn. While there are plenty of horror-themed camp films, there are also films that show the better, lighter side of camping. They recognize that the ritual is a coming-of-age moment that will alter a youth’s life forever. All the possibilities that camp has to offer has been explored onscreen.
Here are the best summer camp movies in cinema history:
1. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
David Wain’s satirical comedy is the film that launched a thousand careers, featuring a cast that ranges from longtime friend and collaborator Paul Rudd to David Hyde Pierce. It’s largely a spoof on teen sex comedies of the 80s (the only sex onscreen is homosexual, and it’s brief, played for laughs).
Initially, the film was a critical and commercial failure. In the years since, it’s become a cult favourite and was followed by a Netflix prequel. The cast alone is enough to sell it, but the dry wit and Rudd’s natural charisma carry the film well.
2. Role Models (2008)
Though the film isn’t entirely set at camp, the scenes set during a camping trip are some of the funniest of the decade. Paul Rudd’s Danny is in a rut. He’s been hawking a horrible energy drink called Minotaur for a decade and he hates his life. After an altercation with a police officer, he and his carefree co-worker Wheeler (Sean William Scott) agree to a mature babysitting program called Sturdy Wings, where they are forced to bond with 11 and 14 year old wayward children.
Rudd never loses his dispassion for life, always offering up the funniest line. During the camping trip, when asked to tell a scary story, he tells the kids that in parts of the world, they’re kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. It may be a little racy for younger generations, but beneath the cynicism, there’s a genuine bleeding heart that triumphs over all.
3. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
You knew we had to pick one of these, so why not go with the most entertaining. The first is unjustly well-regarded and hasn’t aged well; it’s surprisingly dull. The sixth is the first time a filmmaker realized these films could actually be fun AND scary. Jason Vorhees, the killer who supposedly drowned as a child due to unattentive counsellors, was killed in part four by Tommy Jarvis. Part Six opens with an older Tommy unearthing Jason’s body to ensure he’s dead.
While doing so, the corpse is struck by lightning, re-animating it. And from then on, we’ve been treated to Jason in New York, Jason in space, Jason going to hell and Jason fighting Freddy Kruger. This is easily the best of a franchise that’s often just silly.
4. Happy Campers (2001)
Daniel Waters, writer of the dark comedy Heathers, wrote and directed this little known gem. When the head of Camp Bleeding Dove is struck by lightning, the counsellors find themselves thrust into positions of responsibility for which they are unprepared. It’s a slight film, with sublte jokes and a surprising amount of sweetness. It’s a film that went straight to video due to studios being clueless how to market it.
5. Meatballs (1979)
In the late 70s/early 80s, there was no comedy team more powerful than Bill Murray and Ivan Reitman. Their relationship would culminate in the 1984 classic Ghostbusters, but Stripes and Meatballs came first. A film about underachievers for underachievers. Murray plays a camp counsellor who takes the unconfident Rudy under his wing. Murray’s “It just doesn’t matter” monologue is a surprisingly funny, uplifting motivational speech.
6. Indian Summer (1993)
Lou (Alan Arkin) longs for the glory days of summer camp. So he engineers a trip back to the old grounds with a group of grown campers. This is a more mature, thought-provoking work, often compared with The Big Chill. It’s for the counsellors, mostly, as younger children probably wouldn’t identify with the longing for nostalgia they’ll one day feel.
7. Adams Family Values (1993)
Since Meatballs, camp films have always pit the underdog campers against the elite, upper-crust rival camp. But what would the underdogs do if they were already placed in the elite, upper-crust camp? That’s the question that Adams Family Values answers, and the answer is darkly funny, as Wednesday Adams deconstructs both the camp film and traditional bonding rituals. The screenwriter has since said the film is a parody of Ronald Reagan’s America. An interesting, if obscure and easy-to-miss satire, Adams Family Values is one of the few sequels that surpasses the original.